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During this pandemic, I've struggled to figure out how to best help everyday people. One way that I am trying to help is by speaking at funerals across the country. Another is by speaking at high school and college graduations. I've agreed to nearly 50 so far. Today, I spoke at the graduation of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Here's the written version of my short address to the students:
I’m Shaun King. I’m a journalist. An author. An organizer. A husband to my high school sweetheart. A father of five children from elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a constant presence on social media. I’m a son. I’m an uncle. I’m a friend. During this pandemic, I’ve been a pastor and guide. I’m an advisor. I’m a podcast host. I’m an activist. I’m a political advisor. I’m a boss and supervisor. I’m a neighbor.
I’m actually a historian by training. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in history.
I’m a lot of things.
You are a lot of things. You will become a lot of things. And I wanted to start there, because I know that so many of you are determined to be just one thing — and that’s OK. You have a dream, you have a vision, you have hopes. And I know that this pandemic, this moment of time that we are in, particularly as people who love New York and call it home, causes us to wonder if our dreams will just be stuck there and stay dreams and hopes forever.
Of course, none of us ever imagined that we’d be here right now, but what I need you to understand is that no matter how bad, how strange, how difficult this moment is, it won’t last forever.
When I was a 15-year-old boy growing up in rural Kentucky, I was assaulted so badly by a group of racist students, with fractures in my face and ribs, and a back so badly injured that I had to have three spinal surgeries. I was broken — physically and emotionally. A therapist diagnosed me with PTSD. And I missed nearly two years of high school recovering from injuries and surgeries. At that point, it was the lowest, most brutal moment of my life.
Of course, none of that was a part of the plan I had for my life. And for a moment, I was so confused about how I would be able to bounce back. The injuries changed my life. And I’m not glad that it happened, it was awful, but had all of that never happened, I don’t even know if you’d know me right now. What was meant to destroy me burned into my heart a passion for justice. What was meant to ruin me, caused me to care deeply about people who had been injured — physically or emotionally. And those low moments, where I had to go through months of physical therapy and counseling to get back on my feet again ultimately shaped my character.
We are so much more than a sum total of the bad things that have happened to us. Many of you have endured unspeakable hardships. This pandemic is a hardship. It’s changed your graduation, of course, and for many of you, it has actually impacted your family in profound ways. Maybe you’ve lost loved ones. Maybe you’ve lost your job.
What I need you to understand is that this moment is a phase. It won’t last. But how you respond to it will impact the rest of your life. And if you don’t mind, I have just have a few pieces of advice for you on how I hope you will respond to this low moment that we’re in:
1. Be generous and kind. As hard as this moment is, try your best every single day to be slow to anger, quick to forgive, and determined to be a force for good. For me, that means I’ve volunteered to help families all over the country with their funerals. I spoke at an online funeral yesterday. It means that I’ve volunteered to speak at graduations all over the country. I have another one I’m doing right after this one. But what does it mean for you to be a force for good? What it means for me is going to be different than what it means for you. It doesn’t have to be big, but I want you to grapple with the questions: how can I make the world a better place today? Who can I help? How can I tilt my skills, my knowledge, my life, my energy toward good? Every day.
2. Some people say, “God laughs at our plans,” and I understand why they say that, because life can be hard and can interrupt our plans, but the second piece of advice I have for you is to be strategic. All of our plans won’t work, but let me tell you what I am 100% sure won’t work: not having any plans or any strategy at all. Wherever it is you wanna go, whatever it is you wanna do, it’s going to require steps, it’s going to require directions, it’s going to require a strategy, and it’s going to require some real organizing of your life. It’s going to require you to say no to many risks and temptations. It’s going to require you to be focused and intentional.
3. I have so much more to say, but the last thing I want to leave you with is this: dream bigger than the real limitations of this moment. Dream bigger than the limitations of your bank account. Dream bigger than the stereotypes people may have on your race or gender or orientation or ability or zip code. Dream bigger than the pain of your past. Dream bigger than the devastation of this pandemic. Dream bigger. This world has a way of trying to squash your dreams down and convince you that it’s not worth having an imagination, but I implore you, I beg you, never stop dreaming. I believe in you. But in this moment, I need you, the world needs you, to believe in yourself and pursue your very best life.